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Science, Spirituality, and The World To Come

I probably spend too much time defending the role of religion in our lives, especially in the opinion of those who identify themselves as nonreligious or atheist. While they tend to define religion as a belief system oriented on the supernatural, driven by superstition, stuck in the past, prone to fanaticism, and utterly irrelevant to the real challenges of our postmodern experience, I don’t regard any of those components as essential to religion.

It’s not the components – these or any others – that properly define religion, but its function in  connecting and holding them together as a coherent worldview and way of life.

Properly understood, religion is the world-building enterprise that has preoccupied humans since our evolutionary arrival to the scene. Its principal task has always been to nurture and refresh the connection between an objective realm of observable facts (around us) and a subjective realm of intuitive feelings (within us). Just in case my reader is about to resurrect the overworked dualism that pits facts against feelings, where facts are reliable data about reality and feelings are … well, only feelings and nothing we should count on, we need to be reminded that facts are still constructions in the mind and not simply what is ‘out there’.


If you point at something in the objective realm and say, “That is a fact,” I will have to ask, “What, exactly?”

“That, over there,” you’ll reply, and proceed to describe what you’re looking at. But of course, over there only makes sense as a proximal location from our shared point of reference (here), and the words you use will carry connotations from the echo chamber of language – assumptions, for instance, regarding how properties adhere to substances, how single objects are distinguished from their surroundings, how entities are different from events, what associations inform your concept of it, the degree in which my concepts and assumptions match yours, and so on.

In other words, whereas the objective realm of facts appears as if it is separate from the mind, our perceptions, assumptions, and representations of it hold space nowhere but inside the mind. At the same time, our mind is registering a subjective realm of internal feelings – or as we should more properly name them, ‘intuitions’. These are no less real than the facts we observe, just real in a different way. The bias of Western epistemology favoring empirical knowledge of the objective realm has preferred to throw intuition under the bus when it comes to providing information we can count on.


A tricky question has to do with what, exactly, intuition reveals – and that word is chosen carefully as well, since the concept of withdrawing a veil is so prominent in religion. What it reveals is not an object, but, in keeping with the subject-object duality of consciousness, something that has been metaphorically represented in subjective terms as the Supreme Subject, the creative source and essential ground of being itself, or God – not in the sense of a supernatural or metaphysical entity, but the grounding mystery of all things.

The ground of being cannot be observed as separate from us, for it is the deepest truth of what we are – as human manifestations of Being.

Religion, then, speaking more historically perhaps than to its present forms, has the task of keeping the self-conscious center of personal identity (my “I,” your “I”) oriented outwardly to the objective realm by way of a relevant model of reality (or cosmology) and simultaneously oriented inwardly to the grounding mystery within. Over its many millenniums – except in the present day for many believers – religion has worked to align the outer and inner, the universe as we know it and the ground of being, thereby supporting a sense of our existence as grounded in a provident reality.

As our conscious engagement with these two realms has evolved, we’ve come to regard them by the terms ‘science’ (engaged with reality external to the mind) and ‘spirituality’ (engaged with reality internal to the mind).

A shorthand definition of religion, therefore, conceives it as a dynamic system of symbols, metaphors, stories, and sacred performances (i.e., rituals) that maintains a relevant conspiracy of science and spirituality. The stories it tells are a braid of theory (explaining the objective realm) and myth (revealing the subjective realm), which until very recently were complementary narrative strands in our self-conscious engagement with reality.

The product of these two strands working together is what constructivism calls our ‘world’, which exists entirely inside our mind, or in what I have named in this context the imaginarium of belief. As suggested in my diagram, our world opens outwardly to the objective realm and inwardly to the subjective realm, situating us meaningfully within the present mystery of reality. When all is working well, our knowledge of the universe (out and beyond) is relevantly aligned with our intuition of communion (down and within). Religion is relevant and effective and doing its job.

But things do fall out of alignment. Science can move so fast and far ahead in its discoveries that the myths of religion can’t keep up. This is what happened in the West. The myths of creation, providence, and salvation were composed on a cosmological framework arranged vertically in three levels (Heaven, Earth, and Hades or hell). For our salvation Jesus came down from heaven, lived and taught and was killed, at which point he went farther down, but then came up again, and a little later went still higher up, back to heaven where he is currently preparing for his final descent at the end of time.

All that up-and-down business made perfect sense against the backdrop of a three-story universe. Not so much in one that is expanding radially and has no absolute vertical orientation.

Another kind of disorientation happens when our inward sense of grounding is lost. Trauma, tragedy, and chronic stress can sever the anchor-line of faith in a provident reality, motivating us instead to latch onto something we can control, which the Buddha called attachment and the Hebrew prophets idolatry. Idols can range from physical statues, orthodox doctrines, and mental concepts of God, to anything we believe will make us happy and secure (e.g., wealth, possessions, status, glory, or even a utopian “no place” like heaven).

We can’t get close enough to, or get enough of, what we hope will make us happy and secure because nothing can. The more desperate we become and the harder we try, the farther we get from our true center.

When such anxiety overtakes an entire culture and historical era, a consequence can be that individual development is compromised – particularly in regard to the critical achievement of ego strength. This term shouldn’t be confused with ego-centrism, where an individual can’t consider any reality beyond his or her own urgencies, ambitions, and convictions. Ego strength is the goal of individuation, of becoming an individual with a unique center of personal identity and creative authority.

Because anxiety motivates attachment and attachment interferes with individuation, such individuals lack a stable center and have a neurotic need for their world to stay the same. They refuse to accept the new scientific model of reality, and they can’t drop their attachments for a deeper (transpersonal) spirituality. Their religion tends to be oriented on the supernatural, driven by superstition, stuck in the past, prone to fanaticism, and utterly irrelevant to the real challenges of our postmodern experience.

Their religion, not religion itself. The world to come might be more of the same, which is bad news for everybody. Or it might be different, but that’s up to you and me.

 

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The Shining Way

Religion tends to be different from a mere philosophy of life in its claim to offer a way through, out of, or beyond what presently holds us back or stands in the way of our highest fulfillment. In the genuine traditions of spirituality, such a solution avoids the temptation of either an other-worldly escape on the one hand, or on the other a do-it-yourself program where individuals must struggle to make it on their own. It’s not only a perspective on reality that religion provides, then, but a way of salvation – a path in life that leads to and promotes the freedom, happiness, connection and wholeness we seek as human beings.

Our tendency today is to regard the various religions as spiritual retail outlets, each putting its program on offer in competition for the consumer loyalty of shoppers – in recent decades called seekers or the unchurched. As we should expect, each name-brand religion has terms and conditions that are unique to its history and worldview. In addition to its characterization of what we need to get “through, out of, or beyond,” each religion has its own individualized set of symbols, key figures, sources of authority, and moral codes that members are expected to honor.

Muhammad and the Quran are not featured in Christianity, and neither are the teachings of Jesus or Christian atonement theories studied in Buddhist temples. The halacha and mitzvah of Moses are not among the devotional aspirations of a Native American vision quest, nor is zazen practiced in Islam. When we view the religions according to what makes them unique and different from each other, the way of salvation seems like it must be one choice among many.

In face of such confusion, perhaps secular atheism has it right: Do away with religion altogether and the world will be a better place for us all.

If you care to study religion more deeply, however, you will understand that it (in all its healthy varieties) is a sociohistorical expression of something much more profound. Here the terminological distinction between religion and spirituality is helpful, so long as we can resist setting these against each other, as when religion becomes “organized religion” and spirituality gets relegated to one’s individual quest for inner peace or mystical insight.

Religion and spirituality go together – and always have – in the same way as the vital life of a tree goes with the material structure of its roots, trunk, branches and leaves. Our own inner life is always (and only) inner to an outer mortal body. These are not two things that can be separated, but two aspects of one reality distinguished in a fuller understanding.

The questionable doctrine of the immortal soul notwithstanding, this dynamic unity of two aspects (inner essence and outer expression) cannot be divided. Not only do “inner” and “outer” imply each other logically (i.e., in thought), they are inseparably united ontologically (i.e., in being) as well.

It’s not as if the inner life of a tree can exist outside and without the support of its physical system. Nor can the inner life of soul persist absent the body; it is inner only to a whole self, not as one part that can be separated from another part. In the same way, religion without spirituality is dead, but spirituality cannot exist without embodiment in religion. Religion comprises the symbols, stories, beliefs, rituals, and practices that embody the spirituality of individuals in community. Such expressions or outer forms can be highly relevant and effective in what they do, serving to channel the essence or inner life of spirituality into our shared experience.

But these forms can also fall out of alignment and lose relevance, as when the model of reality (cosmology) serving as backdrop to early Christian myths shifted by virtue of scientific discovery from a three-story fixed structure to an outwardly expanding universe. This cosmological shift gradually rendered the sacred stories – of angels descending, a savior ascending, the Holy Spirit descending, the savior descending again, and the company of true believers ascending at last to be with god forever in heaven – literally nonsense. Or at least nonsense if taken literally.

Unfortunately, when religion is sliding into irrelevance, believers, at the admonition of their leaders, can start to insist on the literal reading of sacred stories. If the savior did not literally (that is, factually) go up to heaven and will not literally come back down to earth, and very soon, what becomes of these stories, the canon of scripture, and to the entire tradition of faith? Since a “true story” must be based in fact, and facts are properties of physical reality, then these stories must be literally true or not at all. When this error in narrative interpretation finds a footing in religion, the whole enterprise starts to close in on itself and the lifeline to a deeper spirituality is lost.

If we were to open the religions again to the wellspring of spirituality we would witness a renaissance of creativity, meaning, and joy across the human family. The culturally unique elements would be appreciated as eloquent “styles” in the expression of our inner life as a species, flourishing in fertile niches of geography, history, tradition, and community.

The metaphorical narratives of mythology is where spirituality first breaks the surface into cultural expression. By looking through these narrative expressions, deeper into the unique and culture-specific elements, we can discern what I will call the “Shining Way” of salvation. Again, I’m not using this term salvation as a program of world-escape but instead as a guiding path towards our fulfillment and well-being as individuals, communities, and earthlings. As I’ve tried to unpack the finer details in many other posts of this blog, here we will only take in the big picture and broad strokes of this Shining Way.


We begin life in a state of unconscious oneness, where our individual consciousness is yet undifferentiated from the provident environments of mother’s womb and the family circle. This is the state depicted in myth as a garden paradise, where every requirement of life is spontaneously satisfied and reality is fully sufficient to our needs. Consciousness is completely anchored in the synchronicity of the body’s urgencies and the enveloping rhythms of providence. We call this our ‘first nature’ since it is what ushers us into the animal realm of instinct, survival, and the life-force.

It was out of this unconscious oneness that our individual identity gradually emerged and gained form. What we call our ‘second nature’ consists of the habits – the routines of behavior, feeling, and belief – that our tribe used to shape us into a well-behaved and obedient member of the group. This is a period of growing self-consciousness, of sometimes painful experiences of separation from the earlier state of immersion where we felt enveloped and secure.

In mythology it is that fateful transition away from oneness and into a separate center of personal identity known as ‘the fall’. Paradoxically it is at once both a loss and a gain, a fall out of unconscious oneness and an exciting entrée to a self-conscious existence.

As our second nature, ego ideally develops increasing strength, particularly through the formative years of childhood. Again ideally, we will arrive at a point where our personality is stable (based in a calm and coherent nervous state), balanced (emotionally centered), and unified (managed under an executive sense of who we are) – the key indicators of ego strength.

I have to insert that ominous qualifier ‘ideally’ because ego consciousness doesn’t always advance in the direction of our creative authority as individuals. If our mother’s womb and early family circle were not all that provident – subjecting us to dangerous toxins, stress hormones, abuse or neglect – and because we inevitably make some poor choices of our own, ego can get stuck in a closing spiral of neurotic self-obsession.

As I have explored in other posts, theism is a form of religion that features the super-ego of a patron deity who authorizes a tribe’s moral code and serves as its literary model in the character development of devotees. Theism is a necessary stage in the evolution of religion, just as ego formation is a necessary stage in human development. But just as ego needs to eventually open up to a larger transpersonal mode of consciousness (we’ll get to that in a bit), a healthy theism must also unfold into a larger post-theistic perspective.

Ego and patron deity co-evolve, that is to say, and when ego formation goes awry, theism becomes pathological. Now you have a social system that is both a projection of ego neurosis and a magnifier of it throughout the collective of like-minded believers.

A neurotic ego is deeply insecure, defensive around that insecurity, conceited (“It’s all about me”), and unable to think outside the box of belief (i.e., dogmatic). Not surprisingly, these traits find their counterpart in the portrait of god among pathological forms of theism. Ironically, while these forms of theism tend to glorify separation, aggression, and violence in their concepts of god, on the Shining Way of salvation these are seen as the source of our greatest suffering.

But let’s get back to the good news.

When ego strength has been achieved in our second nature, we are able to surrender our center of identity for a larger and fuller experience of life. In Christian mythology, this release of the personal center is represented in the scene where Jesus surrenders his will to a higher calling and commits his life on the cross into the hands of a compassionate and forgiving god.

NOTE: I’m keeping the action in the present tense because the myth is not primarily an account of the past, but rather an archetypal representation of the Shining Way. As archetype, Jesus in early Christian mythology is not merely a historical individual of long ago, but represents humanity as a whole. He is, as the apostle Paul recognized, the Second Adam or New Man, the turning point into a new age.

When we surrender our center of personal identity, consciousness can expand beyond the small horizon of “me and mine.” What we come to is not a larger sense of ourselves but, as Siddhartha observed, an awareness of ‘no-self’, an experience of consciousness dropping the illusion of separation and ego’s supposed reality. What the neurotic ego would certainly regard and strenuously resist as catastrophic oblivion is experienced instead as boundless presence.

Such insight marks the breakthrough to unity consciousness and is represented in myth as the Buddha’s earth-shaking affirmation under the Bodhi tree, and as the resurrection of Christ from the dead.

According to the Shining Way, liberation from the habits and conditions of our second nature leads us by transcendence to our higher nature. We have progressed in our adventure, then, from a primordial unconscious oneness, through the ordeals and complications of self-consciousness, and with the successful release of attachments we come at last to the conscious wholeness of body and soul, self and other, human and nature.

If we’re going to work this out, we will have to do it together. There is no other way.

 

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The Weights of Truth

Most of us, most of the time, don’t really grasp the fact that we are continually constructing the meaning of life. A naïve perspective assumes that meaning is something ‘out there’ in reality to be searched out, discovered, and assimilated into our view of things. So, even though constructivism has been in our cultural consciousness now for well over a hundred years, the overwhelming majority of us don’t accept it as a valid statement concerning the nature of meaning and our mind’s role in making life meaningful.

In our day particularly, rationality has gone out of fashion. Our social agreements and personal beliefs are based on other sources and foundations, not so much on whether our explanations and reasons are very reasonable.

It’s of critical importance, then, that we take some time to dig into this question of truth and how we construct the meaning of life. As a tool I have designed what I call “weights of truth,” organized as a pyramid of sources and foundations, with each level building on ones underneath it and in turn serving as a basis for those higher up. By “weight” I mean that we tend to rely more (deeper levels) or less (higher levels) on the various sources and foundations; that is to say, we give them more or less weight in our construction of meaning.

Let me start by defining each weight (or level), and then we can come back to look at how this relates to a couple enterprises of culture that frequently contradict each other – at least in our time. Science and religion don’t have to compete for our loyalty, and for the longest time they actually complemented each other in constructions of meaning known as the distinct worldviews of human culture. After we have clarified the various weights of truth, I’ll make a case for how science and religion might once again cooperate towards a larger and more relevant meaning of life.

Experience

When the individual senses, perceives, or undergoes something we say that he or she has an experience of it. As we all know, these senses and perceptions are not always (or even all that frequently) reliable representations of reality. There is a subjective quality to experience that makes it finally impossible to verify whether two individuals in the same situation are really undergoing the same thing. Experience is notoriously mercurial and inescapably biased. And yet we rely on it all the time to determine what is true and meaningfully relevant in what’s going on.

Included in this category are the profound and essentially ineffable assumptions we carry from our prenatal, newborn, and early childhood period. Way back then our brain was calibrating our body’s internal state according to its sense impressions of the environment. Mother’s womb, the family circle, and our material surroundings conspired to form in us a nervous state that would maximize our chance to survive and grow. A warm, nurturing, enriched, and supportive environment strengthened a sense of reality as provident, benign, and friendly. In contrast, a toxic, hostile, and abusive environment signaled our nervous system to assume a state of anxiety, hypervigilance, and chronic distress.

I give the greatest weight to experience precisely because everything else in our construction of meaning is built upon this baseline nervous state formed in our early days and years of life. As already suggested, its ineffability – the fact that we can’t fully find the words to articulate how we’re feeling at this level – is due to its formation prior to our acquisition of language. Consequently, experience is where the articulate mind sinks into the literally unspeakable urgencies of the body. To us, this is very simply (and indisputably) the ways things are. As we look out on reality, our nervous system is filtering out and focusing in on whatever confirms a visceral sense of what truly matters.

Testimony

By testimony I mean the words and witness of other people. It is positioned deep among the weights of truth because our worldview, as a construction of meaning, borrows heavily on the authority of those we depend on and admire. For reasons that don’t need to be explained, our baseline nervous state in early life seeks and finds confirmation in what our taller powers tell us about the nature of reality. Taller powers who abuse or neglect us are more likely to hold beliefs that represent life as “nasty, brutish, and short,” just as provident taller powers tend to speak of reality in more positive and optimistic terms. In this way, their nervous state literally spoke to our nervous state and we joined the trance.

In essence, testimony is less about the factual accuracy of what is said than the trustworthy character of a witness. That’s why testimonies in the courtroom are validated or impeached on the basis of how honest and truthful a witness is made out to be. Particularly in religion, the unimpeachable authority of witnesses who attest to revelations whereby a higher truth was made known to them is a powerful shaping influence on the worldview of believers. They – or more accurately, their words as preserved in scripture and tradition – either confirm what believers already sense or hope is true, or else the authority of their witness might persuade nonbelievers to convert.

Rhetoric

The power of language in shaping thought, evoking feeling, and confirming or persuading belief is what we call rhetoric. The ancient tradition of Greek rationalism elicited suspicion in the philosophical establishment towards those (called Sophists) who used language to stir the emotions and entrance an audience, rather than challenging students to think in clear and distinct ideas. Rhetoric goes very naturally together with testimony, since it’s not typically the rationality of what someone says that pulls us over to their side, so much as how they say it.

Thus charisma, speech-craft, pitch, volume and the cadence of words spoken (along with posture, gestures, and body language) are most often what persuades us, more so than the coherence, soundness, or realism of what is said. Indeed, if we have to determine the truth-value of someone’s testimony, we will check it against how trustworthy the person is before we bother checking the facts. It may well be that our susceptibility to rhetorical entrancement goes back to the sing-song voice of our mother that so effectively calmed us down and put us to sleep.

Evidence

Evidence is how reality presents itself to our senses. We detect something ‘out there’ and focus our perception in order to establish its objective status. Evidence is not how something feels to us or what it seems to be like, but what it is as determined through our observations of it. Despite this virtue of objectivity, however, we still find it necessary at times to distinguish between strong evidence, which is based in the way things really are, and false evidence that can lead us to believe something that isn’t really a fact at all.

For example, before Copernicus the cosmology of most people took the observation of the sun arcing across the daytime sky as evidence of Earth’s stationary position at the center of everything. They really were seeing the sun moving, although what they saw wasn’t really the sun moving. It was false evidence, and it took Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Brahe, and a few other astronomers to finally convince most of us that in reality it’s the earth that moves around the sun. Western science has been a wildly successful enterprise in exposing false evidence and verifying strong evidence.

Logic

My last weight of truth in the construction of meaning is logic, another element of language but more about the connection and coherence among the thoughts that words represent than the craft and persuasive power of speech. We can regard science as a research discipline (or system of disciplines) that is constantly working towards the most rational explanation of empirical observations gained through specialized instruments and meticulous observation in the field or laboratory. The terms rational and empirical acknowledge the two principal traditions of philosophy (rationalism and empiricism) that have shaped our Western mind and worldview.

In other words, science isn’t and cannot be only about evidence – just the facts, as we say. It too, like religion and culture in general, is involved in the process of constructing meaning. Digging up fossils, splitting atoms, and organizing data must eventually flow into an exercise of theory-building, which is itself a special kind of storytelling but without the spell of rhetoric. No doubt, the success of science has everything to do with its commitment to doubting experience, setting aside testimony (e.g., “We believe it because Copernicus said so!”), completely replacing rhetorical flourishes with mathematical terminology, and bringing only the strongest evidence into theoretical patterns and predictions that can withstand rigorous controlled experiments.


Science and Religion in the Construction of Meaning

At the beginning of this post I alluded to that complicated relationship between an enterprise (science) dedicated to keeping our constructions of meaning as logical and evidence-based as possible, and one (religion) that is much more interested in reality as the provident, creative, and benign mystery in which we have our existence. For millenniums these two enterprises – one looking out and around to the turning unity of all things, and the other looking within and beneath ego to the grounding mystery of being itself – collaborated in the construction of worldviews that guided the lifeways of both indigenous tribes and great civilizations around our planet.

Instead of a Great Chain of Being as proposed by esoteric philosophies, I am suggesting that what really held these constructions of meaning together and made them work was something closer to my weights of truth and the continuum of meaning they comprise.

But when the theoretical framework of reality as articulated by science started to shift toward stronger evidence and more rational explanations, the sacred stories of religion couldn’t adapt as quickly. They continued to assume a three-story universe in the background of their sacred narratives, while science was revealing a very different cosmic order. In the attempt to save its myths, religion insisted on their basis in fact (evidence), drawing on the words of infallible witnesses (testimony) who had walked with gods, encountered angels, and touched the savior with their very hands.

Today many devotees and true believers are trying desperately to keep science in service to religion, arguing for creationism, supernatural agencies, historical miracles, and a world beyond this one. But it won’t work – it can’t work, for the straightforward reason that its claims are rapidly losing currency, credibility, and relevance in contemporary life. It could be argued that our dogmatic insistence on the truth of obsolete and collapsing constructions of meaning is what is driving religion to fanaticism these days, at the same time as many disillusioned former believers are quietly slipping out of the sanctuary.

By positioning religion deeper in the pyramid of weights I am making a case for interpreting its mythology as poetic art, representing in metaphor an experience of the present mystery of reality, and preserving its testimony through the tradition of generations. Rather than journalistic accounts of supernatural beings and miraculous deeds from a golden age of salvation history, its sacred stories serve to orient human existence – right now – in the great web of life and the adventure that each of us must take on, of waking to our higher nature and giving back in gratitude.

 

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Unfinished Business

Unfinished BusinessI guess I write a lot about what I feel is most urgently needing our attention these days. Current events are interesting because they’re in the news and on our minds, but popular engagement with the news of the day tends to skim the surface of what’s really going on. It’s not nuclear proliferation, terrorist plots, melting ice caps, or the next election that we should be figuring out, but the deeper forces that are presently driving and shaping our reality.

We need a psychological model that reveals the truth about ourselves without reducing us to mindless matter, on one side, or elevating us to metaphysical dimensions, on the other. Importantly it should provide an honest accounting of both the promises and liabilities that attach to our human nature, in a way that makes sense in a secular and global age. The elements of my model are not new in themselves, but I offer definitions and relationships among the elements that are novel – and, I hope, relevant to the current challenges we face.

My diagram above draws an arc of development from a body-centered (early) phase, through an ego-centered (middle) phase, and reaching fulfillment in a soul-centered (late) phase. I’ve joined body and soul in something of a tensive image, stretching between the animal and spiritual aspects of our essential nature. A simple statement of this essential nature is that we are ‘spiritual animals’, animals with a capacity for imagination, creativity, contemplation, transcendence, and communion.

We are not ‘souls in bodies’ or ‘bodies with souls’, but rather a marvelous duality of consciousness that is at once centered in life (body) and grounded in being (soul).

Before we hitch a ride with ego along that rising and falling arc, let’s spend a little more time getting to know the body where its hero journey begins. In other posts I have characterized body as naturally extroverted, that is, as flexing consciousness outward to the surrounding environment and continuously regulating its own internal state (as an organism) according to those external cues and conditions. The body’s own internal urgencies operate for the most part below our conscious awareness and almost entirely outside our conscious control. We might regard the body itself as a highly evolved energy exchange between external resources and these internal urgencies, between the provident conditions of the environment and its own metabolic demands as a living organism.

Ego formation (the rising arc of personal development) entails some decisive negotiations with the body’s animal nature, a process that is motivated and supervised by our tribe. The expected outcome of this process is a centered identity that sees itself as belonging to ‘us’, obediently performing roles that contribute to the welfare of the group. What we call morality is the set of rules, values, incentives, and deterrents that constrain us to behave like a ‘good boy’ or ‘nice girl’ and eventually as a compliant member of the tribe.

Psychologically ego formation is also where reality starts to divide in two, with an objective (‘thrown-over’) world on one side, and a subjective (‘thrown-under’) self on the other side of this line. World here is not a synonym for reality, as we sometimes speak of ‘the real world’ as a factual and nonfictional realm beyond us. As I use the term, world refers to the construct of symbols, language, meaning, and morality that ego, with the help of its tribe, builds around itself. Much of it is (in fact) fictional, in the sense of being a narrative construction of metaphors and stories that form a cross-referencing web of meaning where an individual feels secure.

Self is also a narrative construct made from strands of memory, preferences, beliefs, and ambitions that connect into a relatively continuous braid of character which ego identifies as ‘me’. As a construct, self is no more real than the world in which ego finds refuge and significance. Personal identity, therefore, represents a separate project from the deeper evolutionary one of becoming a mature and fully actualized human being. Indeed, the project of identity-formation can seriously impede and even completely undermine human progress in this larger sense.

Instead of an ego that is stable, balanced, and unified – together comprising a virtue known as ‘ego strength’ – development gets arrested in one or more spectrum disorders (borderline personality, bipolar mood, or dissociative identity).

Getting stuck here – arrested, hooked, fixated – is what lies behind so much suffering that individuals chronically endure and proceed to inflict on each other. Rather than operating from a position of creative authority where the adaptive compatibility between self and world affords the freedom and responsibility to be oneself, neurotic insecurity closes the mind inside rigid convictions and condemns the individual to a prison of shame and conceit, impotence and aggression, profound doubt and fundamentalist certainty, all or nothing.

Increasingly desperate bids for security turn into deadly campaigns for supremacy; or else, which in the long run amounts to the same thing, a final relief from torment through suicide.

A critical deficiency in ego strength prevents an individual from being able to ‘go beyond’, or transcend, the self-and-world construct for the sake of a larger and more authentic experience. Creative inspiration, mystical contemplation, empathic communion, genuinely open dialogue – such experiences are unavailable to the personality which is trapped inside itself.

These experiences, sought and celebrated in healthy cultures, are only possible as ego succeeds in letting go, dropping out, and moving beyond the conventional structures of meaning, deeper into the present mystery of reality.

And thus we have arrived at our consideration of soul, as that introspective turn of consciousness to its own grounding mystery. Even here, however, ego might attempt to take control and claim the inner life of soul as merely another name for subjectivity, for the permanent core of personal identity. I’ve suggested in other posts that this error of mistaken identity is behind the widespread religious doctrine of personal immortality. It’s essential to note, however, that the grounding mystery within is neither the ego, its personality, nor the self of ‘who I am.’

Despite the obvious popularity of the idea across cultures, the invention of personal immortality marks a serious corruption in our proper understanding of the soul.

When ego is transcended – not negated, rejected, renounced, or subjugated, but released and surpassed in a more inclusive, holistic, and unitive experience – consciousness sinks into its own grounding mystery and proceeds thence (or perhaps simultaneously) outwards along the expanding horizons of sensory awareness to the breakthrough insight that All is One. From deep within, far below the surface concerns of our historical situation, we find the grace to relax into being, open ourselves to reality, and ponder our place in the turning rhythms of a universal order (or universe).

This is the birthplace of philosophy, according to its original intention as the ‘love of wisdom’. Only as we achieve liberation from the centripetal (shrinking and tightening) constraints of personal identity can we appreciate the astonishing truth that, in us, the universe is contemplating itself. If we can be faithful in this practice, those chronic and intractable problems that are currently threatening to undo us will simply unwind and fall away.

 

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Inside Terrorism

IdeologyOne approach in dealing with terrorism is to try and knock it out with even greater force. If we can just exterminate the terrorists, we can get back to normal life. The problem with this approach is that it fundamentally misunderstands the nature of terrorism and the individuals who perpetrate its horrors. Our longer term solution will come as we are able to get inside terrorism and see where (and how) it takes hold of otherwise sane and decent human beings. Launching counter-terror campaigns can quickly make terrorists of ourselves.

As soon as we can acknowledge the ease in which we slip into and are taken up by ideologies that control our thoughts, feelings, and behavior, the closer we will be to a world free of terrorism. Once we understand the process as it takes hold of us, more creative, responsible, and wise solutions to the global problem of terrorism will become available. Ideology is a powerful spell that takes possession of our intelligence, radicalizes our attitudes, and compels us to act out of character with our better angels. How it does this is my topic here.

My diagram illustrates the process that produces a terrorist, but which also produces careless consumers who are currently devastating the biosphere of our planet. My challenge here is not to elucidate a particular type of terrorism (Muslim jihadism, rampant consumerism, or some other) but rather how any ideology makes us behave in ways that put living systems, and our own lives insofar as we depend on these systems, in jeopardy of extinction.

The process that slowly but inexorably leads us into the trance of ideology begins at a critical threshold where each of us manages the stress of life. By “stress” I am referring to anything in the environment – a challenge, crisis, difficulty, hazard or obstacle – that disrupts our equilibrium and must be addressed in the interest of regaining balance. Psychosomatic (mind-body) health is our capacity to identify the stressor, size it up, and work out a response that may involve some combination of overt action and mental adjustment. Success in any case will depend on an accurate appraisal of the stressor, along with a strategy for accepting it, overcoming it, reframing it, or perhaps exploiting it to our advantage.

What I’m calling a stressor (i.e., the cause of stress) is something “out there” in the external environment. The disturbance of our internal equilibrium is called distress. How we manage the threshold between stress and distress is a chief indicator of psychosomatic health. When the stress is more than we can handle, it provokes a “stress response” in the body that involves a syndrome of numerous physiological events, such as elevated heart rate and blood pressure, increased breathing rate and muscle tension, and the release of cortisol into the bloodstream which unlocks the energy stores in cells to mobilize stress-appropriate behavior. But of course, if the stress is already “more than we can handle,” something else must be done.

It is at this point that we try to separate ourselves from the internal distress we feel. An absent or ineffective behavioral response to stress leaves the distress unresolved, which further translates into chronic insecurity, flares of anxiety, growing agitation, and general unrest. When we were infants, our distress was pacified in the nurturing embrace of a caregiver. Our higher power helped us feel safe and supported, literally understood as he or she stood under us and calmed us down. When our higher power wasn’t immediately available, we probably found comfort in a transitional object like a blanket, teddy bear, or something to suck on – all of which can be called pacifiers, since they pacified us by alleviating our distress.

A pacifier is anything to which we attach ourselves for comfort. Since our first step was separating ourselves from the external stressor and fixating on how it was making us feel inside, pacifiers provided a way of reconnecting to the environment and recovering security. As adults we frequently seek security in membership, in joining groups and performing roles that help us feel accepted and valued. If our family of origin was not a strong community of support, or was maybe even dysfunctional and abusive, we might spend the rest of our lives looking for a partnership or society where we can belong. If we are desperate enough for security, we may be willing to sacrifice personal fulfillment and “sell our soul” for its sake.

Young people are especially vulnerable to the seduction of other misfits who have found identity in each other’s company. A distressed security-seeker finds consolation in knowing that others are similarly agitated, and joining a group pulls them into an identity contract where they take on obligations, are accepted as “one of us,” and may be given a special name or title. This identity contract anchors a worldview, and in turn energizes that worldview through the devotion and sacrifice it demands. For the insider such a construct of meaning offers refuge from “the rest of the world,” specifically from outsiders who lack understanding or sympathy.

Originally we needed an effective strategy for addressing the stressors of our environment and resolving the distress we felt internally. And ultimately this is what every ideology will drive us to, but now with an agenda that has divided reality into “us versus them.” If the pacifier is important enough to us, we will do anything to prevent it from being taken away. (Have you ever tried taking a security blanket from a toddler in distress?) Every attempt on the part of outsiders to destroy the society that gives our lives meaning only serves to strengthen that meaning as something to be defended at all cost.

When we have reached this point, terrorism as an ideology transcends the individuals possessed by it. Killing every terrorist will be impossible so long as the ideology of terrorism is alive, and only killing terrorists makes it stronger still. What needs to happen is for the ideology to get compromised inside its own logic. I propose that the “logic of terrorism” is a code made up of six elements.

1. Articulation of Grievance

Our distress is formulated into a complaint about the way things are.

2. Validation of Resentment

We need to feel that our distress (insecurity, anxiety, agitation, and unrest) is warranted.

3. Projection of Responsibility

Something in the external environment must be identified as the cause of our trouble.

4. Motivation of Vengeance

We are convinced that something must be done to retaliate and rectify the problem.

5. Justification of Violence

Any sacrifice, damage, or loss of life is interpreted as necessary to our cause.

6. Promise of Reward

A better life awaits, both on the other side of this conflict and in the world to come.

In our “war on terror” the rest of the world (we who are outsiders) have directed the major part of our aggression and criticism at the demonstration of this ideology, in acts of terrorism, but show little understanding of the soil where it takes root. In other words, we are trying to defeat terrorism in the theater of action when we should be disarming it farther down and far earlier in the process of its gestation.

I have argued that a terrorist ideology (as well as a consumerist ideology) is seeded by a grievance narrative, where a fundamental complaint about the way things are is articulated and takes command of our focus. This is what gets inside the minds of young people who are, even in normal development, searching for somewhere to belong that will pacify their insecurity, connect them to others who understand, and give them a meaningful outlook on reality.

But a grievance narrative will only take root in a personality that is unable to resolve internal distress. The narrative articulates what the young person only feels but can’t formulate into words. Once the grievance narrative takes hold, the individual feels supported, understood, and validated – and unwilling to give it up. With the individual’s full agreement, the grievance narrative anchors and drives all other elements of the ideology.

Rather than fighting violence with violence – or, if we must wage war on terror for the sake of our own security, then in addition to it – we would better help our young people learn how to manage that critical threshold between “out there” and “in here,” between self and world, where the stress of life can be met with composure, resilience, imagination, and responsibility. We will stop terrorism when we as parents, teachers, and other adult higher powers teach our children how to stay centered and just relax into being.

True enough, we cannot teach what we do not know. I guess the war on terror starts in me.

 
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Posted by on December 6, 2015 in Timely and Random

 

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The Gravity and Glory of Existence

What is the meaning of Easter?

Is it just about someone who died nearly two thousand years ago and came back to life? For almost half its history, Christianity celebrated Easter as its principal message to the world. As the Middle Ages dawned, however, the focus shifted to the Atonement where Jesus was supposed to have accomplished his world-saving work. Since then, Easter has been the ups y-daisy to Good Friday’s (only apparent) tragedy.

Just look at the difference in iconography between the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic (Latin) traditions. In the former, Jesus is risen, radiant, and very alive, while in the latter he hangs on his cross, gaunt, emaciated, and dead. And even though the Protestant churches replaced the Catholic crucifix with an empty cross, the centrality of Jesus’ sacrificial death continued into the Reformation. Consequently, the narrative of Easter has been interpreted as God’s “Yes” (on Sunday) to the world’s “No” (on Good Friday) – a great reversal where the humiliation of the cross was trumped by the glory of resurrection, ascension, and celestial coronation (as depicted in so much late-medieval and Renaissance art).

My frustration has to do with how this focus on Good Friday and Easter as events in the career of Jesus, while presumably benefiting the world by extension, keeps them back there in history and locked inside a literal Bible. Perhaps our invention of the literal Bible – of a Bible that must be taken literally – is more a political tactic designed to protect our possession of truth against competitors, heretics, and potential converts, than it is out of reverence for the Holy Question at the heart of existence which it seeks to answer across its pages.

Religion is not principally about the supernatural, immortality, or getting to heaven. It begins (or once began) in the realization that human existence is not entirely enclosed by nature and instinct, but stands rather as an open question that subsequently gets worked out (but never finally satisfied) in our quest for belonging, identity, and purpose. This open question calls to us from a beyond within ourselves and asks “Why am I here?” – the primitive and mystical origin of the later philosophical conundrum “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

Religion, then, is the more or less systematic way that this question of existence – this Holy Question – is answered. We call it holy because it has the character and feel of otherness, of addressing us from elsewhere. Perhaps because it is so relentless and restless, refusing to leave us alone, human beings universally have acknowledged it as “Thou.” Significantly, in our Bible the recurring word “repent” refers to a turn in response to being called.

Everything in religion, from its symbolism and mythology (sacred stories), to its rituals and devotional practices, is in effect an elaborate answer to this Holy Question of why I am here, why you are here, why are we here together. Where do we belong? How are we related? What are we here to do?

Even our theological construct of God as the supreme being who created the universe, watches over us, puts expectations on us and holds us accountable, is a projected personification of what human beings have believed to stand on the sending side of the Holy Question.

So when I contemplate the story of Easter, I want to listen for how it answers the question “Why am I here?” I won’t be distracted by the popular, and as I said, very modern assumption that the truth of the story is reducible to historical events – supernatural interventions and miracles purported to have happened long ago. There’s no need to trade our twenty-first century cosmology (theory of the universe) for the first-century cosmology assumed by the Gospel writers, where the up-and-down traffic between earth, heaven, and the underworld presented a perfectly acceptable plot for sacred story.

Since it’s not concerned with describing objective events, I don’t need to leave my intellect at the door before entering the imaginarium of myth.

With the Easter story, as in any sacred myth, we need to stay observant for those epiphanies at the surface where something more is being said or shown. Such locations are marked by images, metaphors, and archetypes that, as it were, pivot the axis of meaning from the horizontal plane of the narrative plot in order to engage deeper (or higher) dimensions. This is where we find an answer to the Holy Question, and if we stay engaged at this level, without allowing the metaphor to flatten out and lose its power, we stand a chance of being confronted and grasped by a profound truth.

For me, there is one image in the Easter story that speaks in this way. It’s not the empty tomb or the angels or even the appearance of the risen Jesus to early morning visitors. Actually, it is an appearance of Jesus, but one that happens on Easter evening among the company of disciples who had closed themselves inside a locked room out of fear that the authorities might come looking for them next.

Only the Third and Fourth Gospels (Luke and John) include this epiphany – this archetypal answer to the Holy Question “Why am I here?” – so it either originated with Luke (who wrote earlier) and was adapted by John, or it was circulating in some early Christian source outside them both.

So there stands Jesus, probably in his skivvies or buck naked. (He had been stripped of his clothes while hanging on the cross, and, according to John, the linen cloths that some women had used in his funerary preparation on Friday evening were found neatly folded inside his burial cave Sunday morning.) “Relax, it’s okay” – or “Peace be with you,” he says to his friends. And then …

Gravity_GloryAnd then the risen Jesus holds out his hands and feet, bearing the wounds of crucifixion where spikes had been driven through into wood. (In John’s version he also shows them the gash in his side where a Roman spear had confirmed his death.) The wounds of a dead man borne in the body of a living man.

That’s the image, the answer to the Holy Question. It’s presented in the myth as an ironic metaphor, one that contains a contradiction (a living dead man) and holds open an irreconcilable paradox.

If Jesus is The Archetypal Man in early Christian mythology – and this is clearly the case as the apostle Paul pointed out many times in his writings (which predate the Gospels) – then in this particular story he is representing all of us; or more poignantly, each of us.

A human being is both subject to the gravity of existence and the bearer of its glory.

During his brief public ministry, Jesus had demonstrated deep compassion for those afflicted under the grind of abject poverty, chronic pain, spiritual emptiness, and political oppression. Instead of preaching to them of pie in the sky or training them in techniques of meditative detachment, he got down into their suffering with them and did what he could to help them out. (The stories of miracle healings, which all the Gospels employ in their portraits of Jesus, carry this memory of how Jesus stepped into the suffering of others with caring support and saved them from despair.)

In addition to taking on the human condition evident in the afflictions of others, Jesus was remembered by the way he accepted – but not merely in a passive mode; rather, how he embraced – his own mortality, especially with the growing prospect of a violent death on his horizon. His challenge to the disciples to “take up your cross,” even if the overt reference to crucifixion was a gloss added later by storytellers, expresses an understanding that commitment to human solidarity and liberation will likely land one in trouble with authorities.

And Rome loved its crosses.

In the face of death, Jesus didn’t back down. As the political and religious heat grew around his notoriety and it was clear there would be no way out, he remained steadfast and resolute in his vision of a world free of bigotry, dogmatism, violence, and fear. True enough, he died for his belief – but more importantly, for the way he demonstrated his belief in action.

Perhaps at first, in the period of time represented in the story as a sabbath of sorrow when all hope seemed lost, Jesus’ vision was regarded a failure.

At some point, however – and again, a three-day event cycle in the narrative probably conveys the meaning of complete transformation, as it still does in contemporary fiction and film – someone in the company of mourners remembered the character of their leader as one who had lived a compassionate, brave, and authentically human life. Upon reflection, he had shown them how to combine grace and courage, passion and humility, how to live like you’re dying.

This is where I think the Holy Question surfaced in the consciousness of Jesus’ bereaved disciples. “Why am I here?” The gravity and glory of human existence had been paradoxically revealed in Jesus, and the ironic metaphor of him standing there in their midst – a living dead man, a man who answered the Holy Question by living fully into his death – ignited their hearts and started a revolution.

Just before he leaves them, Jesus breathes on his disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Now it’s your turn.”

That’s what Easter means to me.

 

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What You (Really) Want

At the very deepest level life is desire. Because organisms are open systems – not closed and self-sufficient, but dependent on their environments for what they need to survive and prosper – desire is active even at the cellular level. As our focus moves upwards to higher levels of organizational complexity and consciousness, desire becomes appetite, interest, longing, curiosity, aspiration and quest.

While your life at the individual and daily level may seem hopelessly complicated at times, the truth is that as a human being you seek just four things. Well, they are not really “things” in the straightforward sense, but rather distinct kinds of experience. It’s not really a successful career, a large social network, lots of money, or even everlasting life in heaven after you die that you really want.

What are these four types of experience, the pursuit of which makes you just like every other human being on this planet? Very simply, you want pleasure, happiness, meaning, and well-being. The present arrangement of your life, as well as the ambitions that get you out of bed in the morning and keep you awake at night, is fulfilling to the degree that you have managed to keep these four pursuits in a healthy balance.

Quad

Let’s look at each one briefly, and then explore how we human beings can lose this balance – and consequently lose our way in life.

You are a sensual being (there, I said it). What I mean is, you are wired and connected to reality by sensory pathways that deliver signals to your brain and body, spontaneously eliciting reflexes that move you toward what you need to survive and away from what might be harmful or dangerous. Pleasure is the lure that gets you to reach out for the big juicy apple. Your cells require its vitamins, fructose and fiber to do their thing, but you need incentive to pick it off the tree and take a bite. Apples are delicious and pleasing because they contain the raw energy your body needs.

Once in a while the apple turns out to be spoiled rotten inside, and your bite into it brings not pleasure but disgust – a signal that it is not gustatory, not tasty and edible, not good for you. Pain (disgust in this case) is the sibling to pleasure, and its purpose is to keep you from doing that for too long, which could result in sickness; or in other situations, in injury and death.

Your body is keyed into pleasure and the pursuit of it because organic evolution has made powerful pairings between the requirements of physical health and the numerous “delivery systems” (like the apple) in your environment that carry the goods. Pleasure feels good, and you typically want more of it. Until you get too full of apples; then the opposite signal of pain kicks in and you start to feel uncomfortable and nauseated.

The advertising industry has devised many clever ways of associating (the promise of) pleasure with purchases that really have nothing to do with what your body needs. A beautiful human model slunk over the hood of the latest model car excites our desire for sex and romance, and then anchors this feeling to the automobile. So we rush out to the dealership to find our beckoning lover. Sixty months of financing beyond our means is not too much (at least at first) to have the pleasure we’ve been promised.

In addition to pleasure, however, you also want happiness. This is because you are an emotional being as well as one that’s wired up for the pursuit of pleasure. Being happy – feeling positive, content, cheerful and optimistic in life – is another enticing payoff for getting into arrangements that (again, promise to) provide the support you need.

Happiness is a very attractive experience, and people spend gobs and gobs of their money, effort, and time in pursuit of it. Thomas Jefferson believed that everyone has an “inalienable right” to chase it down, though he probably didn’t foresee the reckless extent to which later generations would go at it.

Quite often – probably most often; okay, all the time – people seek professional help to find happiness. They want desperately to feel better emotionally about their lives, their relationships, their past, or themselves. This will usually involve a delivery system more complicated than an apple, along with a probability of complications and side-effects that carry some risk as well. But the risks are worth it – or so we are willing to believe.

What else do you want? Meaning. This is because you are an intellectual being equipped with a cognitive intelligence that picks up patterns out of the whirligig of reality, or makes them up where they may be missing. Patterns are rhythms and designs, constellations and correlations that connect things and suggest other orders of significance. The root-word sign in significance names something that points beyond itself and “translates” the mind into a cross-referencing system where its meaning is revealed.

Your mind is a factory of signs. The language you learned from your tribe established the basic conceptual building-blocks of your world. By nature your mind is never content with a closed box of meaning, but soon itches with curiosity to know what’s “outside the box” and around the corner of the latest theory. Of course this natural curiosity can be discouraged by your tribe (and often is), to the point where asking questions is tantamount to doubting authority and opening the box becomes a punishable sin.

The social construction of identity, of what we call the ego, involves the methods by which your tribe exploited your natural desire for pleasure, happiness, and meaning. Especially in the early years, your sense of self was powerfully defined by the preferences, attachments and convictions conditioned into you by your cultural handlers (parents and teachers).  Through the early stages of ego formation, a human being was made into “one of us” – an insider, a good boy or girl, a believer.

But the ego itself is an illusion, fronting a persuasive charade of reality while being nothing  more than a rather sophisticated role play. This appearance of solidity is tested in times of doubt and disillusionment, but like a frantic little spider, the ego rushes out to the rupture and weaves a story that will restore security. If it doesn’t take too long, the trance can go on without serious interruption.

But the web does break, predictably. This is because you are a living, growing, and evolving being. The tight suspension that supports your identity, your world, and all the things that impinge on your happiness cannot keep you from growing up and out of your current disguise. It’s not just that you want more happiness and more meaning – although, again, the advertising industry is ready to accommodate your fantasy. Flip the channel and you’ll see what I mean.

Something else is going on.

You are also a spiritual being – not a soul inside a body, but a being that engages reality with a spiritual intelligence. What are you looking for in this case? What qualitatively distinct type of experience is your soul after? Not pleasure, not happiness, and not even meaning, but well-being.

What is well-being? At first blush, it is about being well, which is linguistically derived from being whole. This is not an experience to be achieved, and it’s not about clutching more things and people into your life to make it complete. It is a realization that all is one and you are a participant in something very much larger than your little ego and its meticulously managed world. Something profoundly mysterious and beyond words.

You are inwardly grounded in this mystery as well as outwardly connected, directly or indirectly, to every other existing thing.

The mystical traditions call this experience communion, from com (with, together) and union (one). Your spiritual intelligence as a human being gives you the ability to be conscious of this mystery, even if you can’t describe it and make it finally (once and for all) meaningful. Soul is that standpoint in reality where you can touch the unity of all things and release your conscious self to the deep grace of being-itself.

And then – ploop! just like that – your mind wants to put labels on it, get a box around it, and convert the experience into a belief. Spirituality is made into a religion, mystery collapses into meaning, liberty is turned into obligation, and what was once a life-changing insight gets pinned like a butterfly to the rigid board of orthodoxy.

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat fall into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

To experience well-being, you need to let go of the attachments and convictions that define you. Like the hard shell of the seed which must relax, let go, and open up to allow the green fuse to emerge, ego-identity and the little world you manage must surrender to the soul’s desire.

Until you can give yourself over to the mystery of life in this moment, your human fulfillment is postponed. Let go of fear. Let go of pain, and even of pleasure. Let go of doubt – and let go of certainty, too. Let go of what you think you need to be happy or have a meaningful life. Let go of “me, myself and I.”

Just let go. All is one. The provident mystery of reality will gently catch you. You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

 
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Posted by on January 27, 2014 in The Creative Life

 

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